Australia Did It, So Did Japan, Belgium and Brazil, Can Britain Do It Too?
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, asbestos companies committed unpardonable crimes. Their actions have resulted in millions of deaths worldwide. While some of the guilty parties have been held to account by national governments, criminal justice systems and civil litigants, it is rare that any of the wrong-doers have made restitution by supporting potentially life-saving medical research into the cancers and diseases caused by asbestos exposures. In Australia, Japan, Belgium and Brazil, however, successes have been achieved; optimism is building that a current campaign by UK asbestos victims will also secure vital funding. Read on.
On December 2, 2005, Australias biggest asbestos conglomerate: James Hardie Industries (JH) signed a deal worth A$4.5 billion (~US$3bn) with the New South Wales Government under which the company would provide $5 million over 10 years to fund medical research into asbestos diseases and pay $750,000 over 10 years for an asbestos education campaign.1
This was neither an act of compassion nor one of beneficence but an acceptance that failing a comprehensive deal being reached, the company could be on the hook for even more money. For the next ten years JH paid $500,000/year to the National Medical Research Council and from 2012 to the Asbestos Disease Research Institute (ADRI) to fund research into treatments and possible cures. The payments stopped as soon as the ten years had elapsed.2
At about the same time as JH started supporting the work of Australian researchers, so did the countrys other main asbestos producer: CSR (Colonial Sugar Refinery):
Since 2010, CSR has sponsored the Asbestos Diseases Research Institutes tissue biobank study. The building of a comprehensive nationwide tissue biobank of considerable size incorporating serum, plasma, DNA, RNA and tumour tissue will permit the construction of a comprehensive catalogue of genomic abnormalities associated with mesothelioma in both tumour and control tissue, which will help researchers better understand the biology of the disease in an effort to try and achieve better clinical outcomes. Information on the tissue bank (which will be very high quality and quite rare) will be made available to the international research community. The resources needed to establish the tissue bank are considerable and include the initial equipment, as well as access to trained nursing staff on site around the country to be ready to collect samples from mesothelioma sufferers.3
Although the action by CSR was, said one observer a kind of corporate whitewash, nevertheless, the donations were welcomed.
On August 29, 2006, Japans Kubota Corporation announced a ten-year plan worth 1.7 billion yen (US$14.4 million) to support medical research into improving medical treatments for mesothelioma patients.4 The funding was allocated to researchers at the Hyogo College of Medicine and the Osaka Medical Center for Adult Diseases; as these institutions were located in asbestos hotspots, both had treated large numbers of mesothelioma patients. The decision regarding these donations was made public fourteen months after a tidal wave of asbestos awareness nicknamed the Kubota Shock shook Japanese society. On June 29, 2005, representatives of the Kubota company admitted that dozens of its employees had been killed by workplace asbestos exposures. In the following days, one company after another made similar announcements.
Following the culmination of the initial research program, on February 14, 2019, Kubota announced additional mesothelioma research funding for the period 2018 to 2023 of 550 million yen (US$ 5m) for the Hyogo College of Medicine and Otemae Hospital. In the statement made by the company, it confirmed that as of December 31, 2022 two hundred and fifty-two of its employees had contracted asbestos-related diseases, of whom 228 had died.5
For much of the 20th century, the Belgian Eternit company (now known as Etex) was at the forefront of Europes asbestos-cement industrial sector. As a result of the companys domestic operations, by the 1970s Belgium had become the worlds largest per capita consumer of asbestos.6 In its annual report of 2019, the company acknowledged its part in the creation of the countrys epidemic of asbestos-related diseases:
We cannot undo the past and we deeply regret that people become seriously ill due to asbestos exposure. To put adequate support systems in place, we established a mandatory policy that enables our companies to manage their past vigilantly. The policy is based on a three way approach: compensate victims, prevent exposure and support research. It is our sincerest hope that treatment for asbestos-related illnesses will benefit from medical and scientific research in the future.7
Between 2012 and 2024, Etex allocated million (US$11.1m) in donations to the Foundation Against Cancer to support medical and scientific research into asbestos-related diseases.8
In the last few years, fines amassed by Brazils Labour Public Ministry as part of collective moral damages from asbestos-cement companies which had failed to comply with laws and/or the labor code have been put to good use. The money was collected from: Eternit, formerly Brazils biggest asbestos conglomerate and owner of the countrys sole remaining asbestos mine; Saint-Gobain/Brasilit; Isdralit; Imbralit; Infibra and Confibra (now Eternit); and Casalit. Amongst the initiatives supported by the penalties in the states of São Paulo State, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and the Federal District were:
Commenting on the process of obtaining these funds, former manager of the Labor Prosecution Offices National Program to Ban Asbestos Dr. Marcia Kamei Lopez Aliaga said:
It was highly appropriate that companies which broke asbestos laws were not only held to account for their crimes by the courts but also found to have committed moral damages. The Labor Public Ministry felt it was appropriate that funding sourced from negligent corporations be utilized for something which could be of benefit to those whose lives were endangered by toxic exposures. I am surprised that other countries have not taken such action and wish the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK the best of luck in their campaign to obtain £10 million for medical research from Cape Asbestos.11
As a result of a legal battle begun by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (the Forum) in 2017, a number of the machinations put in place by Cape Asbestos to conceal the potentially deadly human health consequences of asbestos exposures were revealed. Having studied the documentation retrieved and preserved by their lawsuit, the Forum launched the Cape Must Pay Campaign, which called on the company to make a £10 million donation to medical research.12
This campaign has gone from strength to strength generating substantial public and political support and stimulating increasing media interest.13 On July 21, 2023, the Forum wrote, in letters to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labor Leader Sir Keir Starmer:
there is now incontrovertible evidence that Cape hid the true dangers of its asbestos products from the public and regulators. Had the true dangers been known, we believe safety measures would have been made tougher, and a ban on asbestos brought in much sooner. We believe Capes actions cost many lives A substantial donation to research would atone for what Cape did a generation ago. It would allow researchers a chance to find new treatments for this terminal cancer [mesothelioma] that blights so many lives.
We hope that Altrad [the current owner of Cape] will eventually do the right thing. Yet we remain concerned that Altrad, and its subsidiaries, are still being awarded major public contracts Recently Altrad were awarded a £30.8 million contract by Magnox Ltd., for decommissioning & asbestos removal at Berkeley Power Station in Gloucestershire We ask for a moratorium on any new public contracts being awarded to Altrad, and its subsidiaries, until Alreads moral obligation to donate £10 million to mesothelioma research has been met.14
Whilst there have not yet been public responses by the Prime Minister or the Labor Party leader to the Forums request to freeze government contracts with Altrad, there is no question that this demand should it be acceded to could significantly impact the companys bottom line. Aside from being the right thing to do, the £10 million donation is also a prudent fiscal decision for a company which states on its website that it has:
an unwavering belief that all work-related injuries and ill health, environmental impacts and defects in quality are preventable [that] our priority focus will be to ensure positive human health and well-being [investing] in the best interests of our employees, contractors and customers, adopting a socially responsible approach which respects the laws, human rights and communities in which we live and work.15
The ignominious role played by British asbestos companies, including Cape, in creating an epidemic that has killed countless numbers of workers, family members, consumers and local people will not soon be forgotten, as shown by a debate earlier this year in the House of Commons during which Jane Hunt MP said:
Asbestos exposure is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with the HSE estimating that more than 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers every year. More than half of those deaths are from mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can occur on the lining of the lung or the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract. Shockingly, according to the HSE, the UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma deaths per capita in the world.16
As one of this countrys oldest and largest asbestos conglomerates, Cape has a moral obligation to make restitution for the deadly consequences of its business decisions. One can but hope that it agrees to do so.
July 27, 2023
1 James Hardie signs $4.5bn asbestos deal. December 2, 2005.
2 Robin, M. James Hardie stopped funding asbestos research the moment it could. October 2, 2020.
3 CSR website. Accessed July 24, 2023.
6 Eternit: the conspiracy of silence. April 28, 2022.
Walker, L. Forgotten killer: Belgian asbestos victims seek real sense of justice. May 28, 2023.
7 Etex Annual Report 2019. Section 3: Social and Environmental Report. P. 73.
9 The Brazilian System for Monitoring Workers and General Population Exposed to Asbestos: Development, Challenges, and Opportunities for Workers Health Surveillance. March 2023.
10 Information gratefully received by emails from Dr. Marcia Kamei Lopez Aliaga and Fernanda Giannasi. July 24, 2023.
11 Email from Dr. Marcia Kamei Lopez Aliaga July 25, 2023.
12 Kazan-Allen, L. Britains Summer of Asbestos Dissent. July 20, 2023.
13 Cape/Altrad: Asbestos campaigners say 'No' to new contracts. July 24, 2023.
Asbestos campaigners demand £10 million from Altrad. July 19, 2023.
14 Letter from the Forum to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labor Leader Keir Starmer. July 21, 2023.
The Forum. Cape Must Pay Press Release. July 21, 2023.
Press release. Magnox awards major decommissioning and asbestos removal contract. June 22, 2023.
15 Altrad. Health, Safety, Environment, Quality & Wellbeing Policy. January 2021.
16 HSE: Health and Safety Executive.
Hansard. House of Commons Debate Asbestos in Workplaces. April 19, 2023.